John Harrison might have the sweetest job in the world: He earns a six-figure income by tasting ice cream.
“It’s kind of like a wine taster,” said Mr. Harrison, official taste tester for Edy’s Grand Ice Cream. “I start with the white wines of ice cream, meaning the vanilla, French vanilla, vanilla bean, and I work my way up to the heavy Bordeauxs of ice cream, the mint chocolate chip and black walnut.”
Mr. Harrison has plenty of amateur assistance during the summer, when folks across America also are tasting a lot of ice cream.
The past 20 years has seen an explosion of ice-cream flavors. Ice-cream makers have added everything from cookies and candy to coffee. Of course, some flavors never made it.
Mr. Harrison said the worst ice-cream flavor he ever tasted was jalapeno pepper.
“That one gave two messages at the same time, hot and cold, and my brain twitched,” he said. “So that one’s still in the cellar.”
Another failed flavor was “pickles and ice cream,” which debuted in the early 1990s with a public taste test in four cities.
“We got 1,500 expectant mothers waddling up,” Mr. Harrison said. “Many of them came back for seconds and thirds, but the bottom line was, ‘We love our ice cream, we love our pickles, but not together.’”
Lee Holden, a spokesman for Vermont-based ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s, said his company also has created a few failed flavors, such as “rose.”
“It tasted a little bit like soap,” Mr. Holden said.
Other odd flavors were “honey apple raisin Oreo” and “lemon peppermint carob chip.” Ben & Jerry’s creates about 100 new flavors annually and releases about a dozen. These replace the slowest-selling flavors, which are declared dead.
So many flavors have been retired that the company has a “flavor graveyard” at its Waterbury, Vt., factory, with real tombstones for “dead” flavors, where Mr. Holden said people can “pay tribute to their departed flavors.”
Ben & Jerry’s factory is Vermont’s most popular tourist attraction.
For all the experimentation with novel flavors, the most popular ice-cream flavor remains vanilla, which makes up 33 percent of the ice cream eaten in the United States, according to the NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y.-based market research firm that tracks food consumption. The second most popular flavor is chocolate, at 19 percent.
Rounding out the top 10 most popular flavors are butter pecan and other nut and caramel combinations, Neapolitan, strawberry, cookies ‘n’ cream, rocky road, marble, cherry and coffee.
In the United States, more than 1.4 billion gallons of ice cream are produced annually, according to the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA).
Of course, ice cream wasn’t always what it is today.
Although frozen desserts containing ice or snow go back at least 4,000 years, ice cream is a relatively recent invention.
“Cream ice” containing dairy products was invented in the 1500s in Europe but was not available to the general public until 1660, when a Parisian cafe added it to the menu.
Custard, however, was not invented until 1775, nor was the first ice-cream machine. Ice cream was not available to the American public until 1800, when insulated ice houses were invented, and the ice-cream industry did not develop until half a century later, when other technologies allowed for mass production and storage.
Jacob Fussell, of Baltimore, opened the first ice-cream factory in 1851. Before that, ice cream was made only at home. A woman named Nancy Johnson invented the hand-crank ice-cream maker in 1847.
In the late 1800s, the first soda fountains began selling ice-cream sodas. In the 1890s, Midwestern ministers attacked soda pop as a sinful drink, and laws forbade it from being sold on Sundays. Shop owners began serving ice cream without the soda, thus creating ice cream “Sundays.”
The ice-cream cone first gained popularity at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, and as the 20th century began, ice cream began to take off.
Ice-cream trucks came onto the scene in Ohio during the 1920s and had become a regular fixture across the nation by the 1970s, said Steve Feldman, president of Stafford, Texas-based Southern Ice Cream Corp., who owns one of the first trucks.
“Most low-income people can’t afford to go to Disney World or Disneyland, and their Disney World or Disneyland is the ice-cream truck,” Mr. Feldman said. “If you see a child go out to an ice-cream truck and you look on their face, they look like they’re meeting Mickey Mouse for the first time.”
Ice-cream sales began to shift away from traditional parlors in favor of supermarkets and specialty stores after World War II, but it was only in the past quarter-century that ice-cream makers began experimenting with flavors, leading to the hundreds that are now available.
Mr. Harrison said he has developed 75 new flavors, the most popular of which is cookies ‘n’ cream.
But, with 23 years’ experience as an ice-cream taster and four generations of ice-cream heritage, Mr. Harrison, who claims his blood “runs 16 percent butterfat,” said his favorite flavor is still vanilla.
“A lot of people think it’s boring,” he said, “but … it goes with everything: pies, cakes, malts, shakes, fresh fruit toppings, so much variety with vanilla.”
He said the way to get maximum flavor from ice cream is to lick it. The flavor can be further enhanced if the ice cream is allowed to soften to the optimum temperature of about 10 degrees.
When he tastes ice cream, Mr. Harrison said, he looks for a “rich and creamy” texture and a flavor that is “a balance between the fresh cream and the sugars and the added flavoring.”
He does his tasting with a gold spoon. Wood and plastic, he said, leave an aftertaste. He also avoids “anything that would clog the taste buds.”
He said he never gets tired of good ice cream and that flavors still are waiting to be discovered. “I know that there’s going to be another star flavor — I know that,” he said. “What it’s going to be, I’m not sure.”
Whatever their flavor of choice, this summer Americans will consume millions of gallons of ice cream, based on 2002 statistics from the IDFA.
“It’s an important American icon,” said Joshua Waldorf, executive director of the International Association of Ice Cream Vendors, “because it unifies us.”